Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Today, on International Children's Day, I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that it represents a sad indictment of Government policy that up to 4,000 children in Ireland are homeless. It is interesting that back in 2011, that figure was at 184. These children feel isolated and anxious and they crave the security of their own home. Those in hotels cannot even have their food cooked for them and, as the House will be aware, have to travel long distances to their schools.

Children with special needs in Ireland today are waiting far too long for an assessment of need, which is their legal entitlement. Some 4,000 children are overdue an assessment under the Disability Act. Access to therapists for children, which we know is key to early intervention and the full realisation of the potential of the child, is at an unacceptable level. We know speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and physiotherapists can do an enormous amount to help children with special needs in particular, yet there are thousands on the speech and language waiting lists, covering assessment, initial treatment and further treatment, and thousands awaiting their first assessment for occupational therapy. We know the impact an occupational therapist can have on a child with dyspraxia, for example, and on the parents also in terms of facilitating the progress of that child. We do not have a comprehensive early education programme for the youngest of children aged from one to four - we simply do not have it. We do not have access in any shape or form to multidisciplinary professionals for children with special needs aged between one and six.

Too many children, some 4,000, are waiting for inpatient hospital treatment across the three Dublin children's hospitals and over 10,500 are waiting for outpatient appointments. We know those delays compromise a child's health and have long-term repercussions. Some 18,000 are waiting for orthodontic treatment, with 7,500 children waiting over two years for an appointment with an orthodontist. In mental health, over 300 children are waiting over a year for access to child and adolescent mental health services and 1,600 are waiting more than a year for psychology appointments. In our education system, NEPS is hopelessly understaffed.

Children in difficulty or with complex needs in this country are simply not prioritised to the degree they should be. That is a fact. We have all met parents of children with special needs. They have far too many hurdles to jump and too many battles to fight on behalf of their children, particularly in regard to health and education. This is about priorities. Children should not have to wait so long for a house, for assessments or for vital intervention services. Does the Taoiseach accept the Government is failing these homeless children, children with special needs and children with mental health difficulties, and that far more needs to be done to alleviate these pressures?

Today is International Children's Day, as Deputy Martin said. Therefore, it is only fair to recognise the progress we have made in recent years, not just the shortcomings. While it is right to acknowledge the shortcomings, it is wrong to ignore all the progress that has been made in recent years and in the last year.

I will give some examples. Real progress has been made in terms of educational outcomes for our children. Education is the great leveller and we see real improvements in outcomes for children in education, particularly around reading and maths. That is down to the excellent work in our schools but also down to the correct policies being pursued by Government and investment by Government over the last couple of years. We have the lowest pupil-teacher ratio ever in primary schools this year for the kids attending those schools. There is huge investment in special needs assistants, meaning there are more special needs assistants in our schools than ever before, recognising the enormous needs of children and the fact we need to make sure children with special educational needs get additional support. There is also investment in preschool. For the first time, all children are guaranteed two years of free preschool. We know those early, formative years are the most important years in terms of determining how well kids do in life, which is why we have been so committed to expanding free preschool.

In the area of health, the national children's hospital is at long last under construction. That will be the mainstay for improvements to paediatric care across the country, including a new paediatric unit planned for Cork, which Deputy Martin will be aware of, and, as the first element of that, the new satellite centre at Blanchardstown is almost complete. Free GP care has been extended so more children are able to attend their doctor or primary care physician without their parents having to pay.

It has been extended to all children under six years and in recent years to 40,000 children with severe disabilities who when Fianna Fáil was in government might not have been granted a medical card because of their parents' income and would have faced regular reviews. We have taken all of that away and guaranteed as of right that all children with severe disabilities will receive a medical card, regardless of their parents' income.

There will be a €1 billion investment next year in mental health services. If spent well, properly and efficiently, it will bring about real improvements in child and adult mental health services, CAMHS, particularly with the hiring of the socio-psychologist.

There has also been big investment in childcare services in the past year. On mandatory reporting which has been long promised and which some people said would never become a reality, mandatory reporting of child abuse is now a reality. The change has worked well because we had prepared for it and ensured Tusla was ready for it. We have introduced universal subsidies for childcare which are paid to all parents of children aged between six months and three years without a mean test. As announced in the recent budget, the affordable childcare scheme has been expanded. As a result, low income families will receive more subsidies towards the cost of their childcare schemes, while more middle income families will qualify. Next year middle income families earning up to €100,000 will qualify for affordable childcare services.

The Deputy is right to point out that there many shortcomings and that there is a lot of work still to be done in improving the lives of children in Ireland, but it would be wrong not to acknowledge also the enormous progress made in recent years.

Being homeless is not a shortcoming. It is a devastating experience for a child, not a shortcoming. Being the parent a three year old child who has yet to be assessed by an autism panel is not a shortcoming; it is a terrible, devastating position in which to be. Being the parent of a young child with severe mental health difficulties and not being able to access services is not a shortcoming; it is a terrible situation for the mother and the child. These are the living realities and experiences of many families throughout the country. On International Children's Day, these are unacceptable experiences that too many children in this country are experiencing in the realm of special needs. The lack of access to physiotherapists and speech, language and occupational therapists compromises forever a child's potential. The inertia and lack of action in providing access to therapists are unbelievable, while the waiting lists are too lengthy. In referring to these failings as shortcomings the Taoiseach displays a remarkable detachment from the hard reality of families' lives across the country. Instead of the glossy brochures and the fancy launches, it is time that we got to grips with the real issues that affect too many families. They represent a very sad indictment of Government policy to date in dealing with these issues.

They are shortcomings, but they are also terrible situations and failings. I do not think we should play with words in dealing with these issues. I would prefer if the Deputy offered solutions, rather than that sort of glib rhetoric.

I have offered them.

Whether something is a shortcoming or a failing should not be a matter for debate. We all acknowledge that these are terrible situations which people are in.

With reference to children in emergency accommodation, the solution is housing supply. This year 8,000 additional homes will be added to the social housing stock, more than half of which were built by local authorities and housing associations, with the others being acquired or leased. Eight thousand is a big increase on the figures for previous years and 10,000 will be delivered next year. We are also expanding the family hub programme which I know is not an alternative to a home, but we do know that families who spend time in family hubs tend to spend less than six months in them and tend to move on much quicker than those who are in hotels.

I do not know about that.

There is also big investment in the provision of permanent housing and family hubs. Deputy Micheál Martin will also be aware of what we are doing in the provision of speech and language therapy. We are trying to change the model because we know that providing additional money and staff has not worked when it comes to therapies. We are trying to change the model by investing in speech and language therapy services in schools to see if it works differently and better, provides quicker access and gives children the support the need.

As I said, I have no difficulty acknowledging there are terrible situations and failings. I am also giving Deputy Martin the solutions and examples of the enormous progress that has been made in education, health and childcare in recent years. I am sorry that on International Children's Day he cannot even bring himself to acknowledge any of this.

I see arriving into the Gallery some of the Stardust families who have handed in a petition today. I extend a very warm welcome to them and wish them the very best in their campaign to reopen the inquest into that fire on St. Valentine's Day 1981. Tá fáilte romhaibh.

At the weekend, to rapturous applause, the Taoiseach made the bold claim that he would, if re-elected, deliver five years of tax cuts. He did not couch his comments with the word "but" or explain to people that his plan was to give with one hand and to take back with the other. However, this is exactly what we see with the latest announcement that tens of thousands of workers, many of them very low-paid workers, will lose their entitlement to claim flat-rate expenses. This was confirmed in the response of the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, to a parliamentary question tabled by my colleague, an Teachta Pearse Doherty, last week. We are talking here about a few bob that workers claim to cover the cost of equipment that they need for work, things like uniforms, tools and stationery. We are not talking about wholesale tax breaks which, as the Taoiseach knows, others enjoy. We are talking about very legitimate and necessary expenditure which certain categories of workers incur as part of their jobs. Some 75,822 shop assistants, the group worst affected, will lose more than €120 a year. This will mean a net saving to the Exchequer of €9 million per annum. It is hardly a massive outlay. Nonetheless, the loss of it for individual workers on low wages will be felt. This entire proposal is a prime example of policy set at a complete disconnect from reality. The high cost of living weighing down on ordinary workers cannot be tackled if the taxman snipes away at the very modest and necessary expenses they can claim.

Let us contrast this with the Government's treatment of the super-rich. As of this summer, there were nearly 500 high-wealth individuals who possess wealth in excess of €50 million each. In 2015 this cohort claimed a combined €93 million in tax credits, a great multiple of what was claimed by low-paid workers. Of this sum, €45 million was claimed in capital allowances, mostly by landlords claiming tax relief on furniture. The very rich can avail of €93 million in tax reliefs, yet the Taoiseach wants to scrap the very small tax relief of a couple of euro a week for ordinary working people. This is unbelievable. Ending the tax break for banks would have brought in €175 million; ending the tax break for multinational corporations, which onshore-----

The Deputy will have another minute.

-----intangible assets, would have raised €750 million.

I call the Taoiseach to respond.

When it comes to priorities, it is obvious where the Government stands.

I call the Taoiseach to respond.

Ordinary workers fall to the bottom of the pile yet again.

Please, Deputy. Let us have some order.

Will the Taoiseach instruct Revenue to scrap this move without delay?

I call the Taoiseach to respond.

I am happy to clarify the situation. The Revenue Commissioners have an ongoing review of concessionary flat-rate expenses. The review is to ensure that the expenses granted are still justified and are appropriate to modern-day employment and work practices. As a result, they said that certain flat-rate reductions for tax purposes may be withdrawn in certain sectors. This would not have an effective date and would not take place before 1 January 2020 so it will have no impact on people's incomes next year and no impact on the budget announcements or budget calculations for 2019.

The Revenue is independent in the administration of the tax code and this issue relates to concessionary practices operated for ease of administration. There will be no change to the general rule set out in legislation and all employees will still be able to claim deductions for valid expenses incurred to the extent not reimbursed by the employer. While certain employees may no longer be able to get a deduction on a universal flat-rate basis, they will still be able to get a deduction on a specific vouched basis. It is a move away from flat-rate expenses to a vouched basis and will not take effect until 1 January 2020, if at all.

I am certainly happy to clarify that for the Deputy. I have seen some coverage which would give a very different impression as to what is happening. I am interested to see that the Deputy once again returns to the theme of the super-rich and my priorities. That causes me to ask a question about Deputy McDonald's relations with the super-rich and her priorities. I read in the Irish Independent - I thought it was Waterford Whispers News at first but it actually was the Irish Independent - that on 11 November, on the day of the Armistice, when all of the party leaders here remembered the war dead and paid respect to those people who gave their lives in that war, when we that evening showed respect to our Constitution and inaugurated our President, Deputy McDonald was in New York. She was hobnobbing with the super-rich at a $400 a plate lunch for her super-rich supporters.

Does she not see any hypocrisy in that? She comes in here, day after day, and accuses us of having some sort of special relationship with the super-rich and of having the wrong priorities. On the day of the Armistice, however, a particularly important day for Protestant and unionist people in this country, on the day we inaugurated our President, on the day we showed respect for our Constitution, Deputy McDonald was in New York drinking champagne and eating $400 a plate lunches with the super-rich.

On 14 November, I think it was, I was in Sligo Grammar School at a remembrance service which was absolutely wonderful and inclusive.

She got no cash.

Indeed, all of the party leaders had been invited but I went and I paid my respects there. This is the list of the categories of workers to which this flat-rate expenses scheme applies. It includes people such as panel beaters, kitchen porters, nurses and members of the Defence Forces, whom we all know are appallingly paid at the lower ranks in any event. The Taoiseach wants to create for these workers an elaborate system for them to vouch and claim very modest reliefs.

Many of these workers will look into this Chamber, will have heard the words of the Taoiseach and will know that many of the expenses enjoyed in this Chamber are not vouched. There is no such elaborate paperwork required. The Taoiseach's answer simply amplifies his position. A very different view is taken of the very rich, the very wealthy, the banks, the billion dollar corporates and the landlords. Landlords claimed an astonishing figure of €45 million in capital allowances and the lion's share of that was claimed for tax reliefs on furniture.

I call the Taoiseach to respond.

By the way, Deputy Pearse Doherty advises me that the Taoiseach's response indicated that none of this kicks in until 2020. In the answer Deputy Doherty received, he was advised that it takes effect from 1 January 2019. The date is looming. I ask the Taoiseach again. Notwithstanding his jibes against me, will he, for once, empathise-----

Please, Deputy McDonald.

-----put himself in the shoes of retail workers, of shop assistants-----

I have to control the House.

-----and give them a break for once?

I call the Taoiseach to respond.

This is rank hypocrisy from Sinn Féin. We hear it far too often. We have already seen the leader of Sinn Féin exposed in her attitude to the Armistice and her attitude to our President and our Constitution. She chose to hobnob with the super-rich in America at a $400 a plate lunch rather than respect the war dead or respect our President. We see members of Sinn Féin trying to claim that somehow they can put themselves in the shoes of low-paid shop workers while we know for years and years they told porkies about their own salaries. I refer to the false claim that they were living on the average industrial wage. We actually know they were living very well on the wages they were claiming.

This hypocrisy really needs to be called out.

Answer the question.

Anybody who thinks Sinn Féin cares about any person on low pay should know that it has been exposed time and again. The note I have indicates that any change will not take effect until 1 January. I will confirm that that is the case later today. It is a move away from unvouched to vouched expenses. At the same time in the Finance Bill we are clamping down left, right and centre on tax breaks and tax evasion. It includes putting a limit on the special assignee relief programme, the exit tax, closing the double Irish and getting rid of concepts such as stateless corporations.

In a recent survey we can see that 97% of people in Ireland have access to a smartphone. As the Government knows, many households are awaiting the delivery of high speed broadband. Access to the Internet brings countless new opportunities and it is no exaggeration to say the Internet is shaping society in a variety of new ways. Many people, especially young people, socialise via the Internet and for many, sharing their lives online has been completely normalised, although the technology was not available to the previous generation. However, the Internet also has a dark side. Young people are often in a phase of self-discovery at a time when they are involved in nearly continuous online activity. We have repeatedly seen cases of older men using Internet websites to fool young people into sending intimate photographs of themselves or even arranging meetings, with frequent reports of sexual assault or even rape as a result. We also know that some people use the Internet to hurt others, for example, in the taking of revenge by putting up compromising photographs for the whole world to see. There is growing evidence of a strong link between cyberbullying and the online harassment of young people and those young people indulging in self-harm and even suicide. Ireland's teenage suicide rate is already among the highest in Europe. Tragically, recent Central Statistics Office figures show that 20 to 30 young people die by suicide annually in Ireland.

On 16 May 2017 the Labour Party's Harassment, Harmful Communications and Related Offences Bill 2017 was passed on Second Stage in this House. In a debate with cross-party support the Government pledged full co-operation to bring legislation through the House to regulate the area of online harassment and bullying. Since May last year dozens more young people have tragically lost their lives by suicide. Too often they were the victims of online bullying and harassment and many more are suffering today. The legislation is urgently required. We would happily accept any amendment from the Government side. For example, as an Opposition party, we could not table a proposal to establish a digital safety commissioner, a concept everybody now supports. It is possible to have these fundamental issues addressed in the coming weeks: we have waited too long. My question is simple. Will the Government facilitate the early enactment of this much-needed law?

I thank the Deputy for raising these important matters related to the mental health of young people, teenagers and adolescents, as well as the impact of the Internet, online bullying and the effects of exposure to nefarious online activities on the mental health of young people. We are very much in the process of implementing the national suicide strategy Connecting for Life which I was involved in putting together with the former Minister of State, former Deputy Kathleen Lynch. It is making a real difference. I know that it is difficult to calculate these things, but we have seen an approximate 30% reduction in suicide rates overall in Ireland in the past couple of years. In part, that is down to the additional resources given to the National Office for Suicide Prevention and additional investment in mental health services, but there are many other factors at play.

I do not know what the current status is of the particular legislation that the Deputy mentions. I do not know if we have any principled objection to it, so I will have to check up on that. I think we indicated in the past that we would support it, so I will have to check that out again and perhaps get back to the Deputy to see if we can progress it.

The Minister for Justice and Equality has been supportive of this measure. I have also spoken to the Attorney General directly on this matter. Second Stage was passed a year and a half ago, which is a long time, yet there is urgency about regulating a sphere of activity that did not exist ten years ago. Our law still references telephones and telecommunications but says nothing about protecting people using the Internet, which is so much more intrusive in everyone's life today.

Regarding this bespoke legislation, which is to establish a digital safety commissioner to protect vulnerable people of all ages, but particularly young people, will the Taoiseach give his Government's commitment, if possible, to at least have the Bill passed by this House before the end of this session?

The Minister for Justice and Equality informs me that his Department is in regular contact with the Deputy's office about the Bill with the view to moving matters on. We certainly want to do that as quickly as we possibly can. When it comes to the Internet and the worldwide web, what I can say is that the era of self-regulation is over. Self-regulation has not worked for the Internet and the tech sector, and we need now to do more. We need to make sure that whatever regulatory moves we make and whatever we put into place actually works and is effective. We are very happy to work on a cross-party basis with Deputy Howlin and others to make that possible.

At 11 a.m., a large number of us marched to the Office of the Attorney General, Mr. Seamus Woulfe, to deliver an astonishing 48,000 signed postcards asking for a new inquest into the Stardust tragedy of 14 February 1981. Those 48,000 signatures are the culmination of the heroic Truth campaign begun by the Stardust Relatives and Victims Committee, which has been courageously led over the years by Ms Antoinette Keegan, her mother Chrissie, Ms Gertrude Barrett, Ms Bridget McDermott and Mr. Eugene Kelly. I welcome them all to the Public Gallery today. We were accompanied by some distinguished Irish citizens, including the great musician Christy Moore, famous journalist Charlie Bird and many others. I commend our Sinn Féin colleagues and especially Ms Lynn Boylan, MEP, on her Trojan work with the committee on this campaign.

As the Taoiseach will remember, St. Valentine's Day 2019 will mark the 38th anniversary of the appalling Stardust nightclub tragedy. The horrific death of 48 young and mostly teenage citizens and the serious injury to another 225 young people was the worst fire disaster in modern Irish history and still affects many people in my constituency of Dublin Bay North. The families of these victims have never received justice or closure. We have had a litany of reports, most recently that of the former judge, Mr. Pat McCartan, in late 2017. For the past year, there has been a motion in my name on the clár of the Dáil, supported by colleagues from Independents 4 Change, People Before Profit, Solidarity and Sinn Féin, rejecting Judge McCartan's report.

Why has the Taoiseach not met the Stardust committee and its solicitor, the distinguished human rights lawyer from Newry, Mr. Darragh Mackin, despite their many requests to meet him on the campaign to reopen the inquest? The committee and its supporters have travelled the length and breadth of this country gathering signatures for the campaign. The 48,000 cards are addressed to Mr. Woulfe and call for a new inquest. They include the following statement:

The original inquest into the tragedy was held in March 1982, just over a year after the fire, when little detail was known about the events of that night. There is now much more detail which has exacerbated the rumour and suspicion surrounding the Stardust fire. It is time for truth for the Stardust victims. I call on you, as the Attorney General, to exercise your right under Section 24 of the Coroners Act 1962 to grant a fresh inquest as soon as possible.

The Taoiseach may remember that, early in this Dáil, I tabled a motion on establishing a new commission of investigation. It was defeated in January 2017 when the Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, and the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, lacked the courage and bottle to insist on a new commission and instead put us through the pointless McCartan exercise, which was a much shorter rehash of the earlier Coffey report of 2009.

Constituents ask why Mr. Justice McCartan did not consider new testimony from witnesses like Mrs. Brenda Kelly who saw flames shooting from the roof at 1.43 a.m., from notable investigations including the book by Mr. Tony McCullagh and Neil Fetherstonhaugh and RTÉ’s "Prime Time Investigates" programme on the twentieth anniversary or from other fire safety professionals and ordinary citizens who witnessed the fire.

Does the Taoiseach support this campaign? Does he agree that these families deserve truthful answers about what happened on that fateful night in 1981 and that they deserve justice and closure? Will he meet them and determine how he can progress this matter?

This relates to a campaign for a new inquest into the Stardust disaster. Once again I wish to express my condolences to the families and friends of those who died in that terrible tragedy. As the House will know there has already been an inquest and a full tribunal of inquiry into the Stardust tragedy. We must respect the fact that there are differences of opinion among families as to whether they want this to be reopened. I acknowledge the work of my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Finian McGrath, on this issue. He fought for and secured a commitment in the programme for Government to have the Stardust fire looked at afresh. Former judge Mr. Pat McCartan, a former member of this House, carried out an inquiry. He acted independently and found that there was insufficient evidence to merit a reopening of this inquiry.

Under Article 30 of the Constitution, the Attorney General is the advisor to the Government in matters of law and legal opinion and has to exercise and perform all such powers, functions and duties under the law. One of the statutory powers conferred by the Oireachtas on the Attorney General in section 24 of the Coroners Act is that of directing the holding of an inquest. The Attorney General acts independently of Government in carrying out his or her role under this section and must do so in a manner that is impartial and fair to all. Section 24 provides that where the Attorney General has reason to believe that a person has died in circumstances which, in his or her opinion, make the holding of an inquest advisable, he or she may direct the coroner to hold an inquest into the death of that person. Where an inquest has already been held, which is the case here, and if a further inquest is to be granted, grounds would need to be set out for the holding of it. It would be expected that any formal request for a new inquest would set out the grounds on which the request is based.

KRW Law, the solicitors acting for the Stardust Relatives and Victims Committee, wrote to the Attorney General on 12 April stating that it was putting the Attorney General on notice of its intention to make a formal request to grant a new inquest into the Stardust deaths, pursuant to section 24 of the Coroners Act 1962. The letter indicated that KRW Law will proceed to lodge an application on behalf of its clients in the forthcoming weeks. This letter was acknowledged in a response from the Attorney General's private secretary. However, no such application or formal request to grant a new inquest has been made to date. In July and November of this year the Attorney General's office wrote to KRW Law noting that the Attorney General awaited the formal request under section 24 of the Coroners Act. In the office's November letter, clarification was sought as to who was instructing the clients of KRW Law solicitors. The office also asked for the grounds for any request to be stated. In July the office also acknowledged the receipt of emails sent by an architect with technical information about fire safety standards. The current position is that although the office has written to the solicitors on two occasions since receiving the initial letter on 12 April in anticipation of receiving a formal request, no such request under section 24 of the Coroners Act has been received. However, I spoke to the Attorney General this morning and once the request is made, he will give it full consideration and will look at it afresh with an open mind.

I welcome that commitment. Quite clearly under the Coroners Act, Mr. Séamus Woulfe has the power to order a second inquest and there is no doubt that the papers requesting that inquest, with detailed grounds, will be served on him in the coming weeks.

In Northern Ireland a new inquest has been ordered on approximately 56 different occasions. The inquest that was held into the Stardust tragedy dealt only with medical evidence of death and not with how the young people lost their lives. The Attorney General can expect the request soon and I ask the Taoiseach to liaise closely with him. It should be noted that the Stardust Relatives and Victims Committee, some of whom are in the Public Gallery today, have received strong support from the Hillsborough families and from the Justice for the 96 campaign.

Another striking feature of this morning was the massive support we received from the people of Derry and, indeed, there were some young women from Derry in The Stardust on that fateful night. Of course, that is very striking because, as the Taoiseach knows, the original Bloody Sunday inquiry by Lord Widgery was a whitewash and was overturned by the Saville inquiry. Is the Taoiseach committing to ask the Attorney General to grant and prioritise the holding of a new inquest and will he also commit to meet the committee and its solicitor, Mr. Macken?

I deal with requests for meetings in the normal way, but it is not my practice to commit to meetings on the floor of the House. That would be unfair to the very many people who request meetings in the normal way.

It is within the power of the Attorney General, under the Coroners Act, to direct the holding of an inquest. However, it is not an untrammelled or discretionary power. There must be sufficient grounds for him to order a second inquest and, in doing so, he has to act independently of Government, so I cannot, nor should I, put undue pressure on him to do so.

I did speak to the Attorney General this morning about it as I was aware that the protest was happening today, and he has confirmed to me that, once he receives a request under section 28 for a second inquest, he will give it full consideration and look at it afresh.